Summary: Little Joe and Mitch show off their school project. Written for the prompt: Nothing but the dead and dying in my little town. (Paul Simon)
Word Count: 1490
“That’s … impressive.”
The secret project in the barn having finally been unveiled—or, in this instance, un-burlap sacked—to great fanfare (the family had all been more than a little curious just what Little Joe and Mitch had been putting together out here over the past weeks, and had even all been honest enough to keep out until summoned), Adam had to admit that the two had really outdone themselves.
Little Joe scowled. “You ain’t gotta sound so surprised.”
Adam grinned cheerfully into his little brother’s glare. “Come on, Joe. When was the last time you approached any kind of schoolwork with this level of gusto?”
Mitch wrinkled his nose. “What’s gusto?”
“Aw, it ain’t nothin’. Adam just likes ta use fancy words.”
Since when had gusto become a fancy word? Two syllables. Not even hard syllables. And spelled exactly like it sounds. Sometimes he wondered what Abigail Jones taught these kids. Sir Walter Raleigh aside, it seemed a few basic essentials were being overlooked.
“What I mean is, you aren’t usually this excited about a school project.”
Joe seemed mollified, though by the rephrasing (excited was three syllables) or by his college-educated brother’s interest in their project, Adam couldn’t be sure. “Well, school projects ain’t usually fun.”
Eyeing the sprawling model of Virginia City across the back wall of the barn, built of a conglomeration of sticks, carefully carved wood slivers, straw, a milking bucket Adam was almost sure Joe didn’t have permission to appropriate, probably a whole bale of wire, several crudely painted signs, enough rock to pave the barn floor, and a dozen other odds and ends, he was forced to agree. It was the type of project guaranteed to capture the imagination of twelve-year-old boys. He was forced to wonder from whence Miss Jones had drawn her inspiration. She wasn’t usually so insightful.
“Well, show me around.”
Mitch jumped immediately into its center, just missing the roof of the miniature mercantile with his boot. Joe, pointing out the wooden horses in the livery, fortunately didn’t notice the near destruction of an entire month’s worth of schoolwork. “See Adam? It’s my painted Indian ponies you sent me for Christmas. They fit perfect.”
Adam nodded, mind drifting back to his first year in Harvard. The simple act of carving, something he had learned from his father and which brought memories of home and family, had been lifesaving to a young man deep in the throes of homesickness.
“We got a jailhouse, too!” Mitch pointed out the wooden bars on a tiny back window, drawing Adam’s thoughts back to the task at hand. Again, he was impressed. These two really had gone all out. He followed their waving hands and overlapping voices, taking in the tiny saloons, the emporium, the bank and lawyer’s office. His attention was caught by a little piece of white cloth (was that one of Pa’s monogrammed handkerchiefs from Marie?) hanging out of an upper hotel window.
Joe grinned. “Old man Kester’s ghost. He died up in that hotel, remember?”
Annnnd, here it was. “Ghost?”
“Yeah. Nothin’ but the dead and dyin’ in our little town.”
Adam looked again. For the first time, he noted other white cloths (Pa was going to kill the kid, even if Pa himself did think the little linen squares were useless and ostentatious), toy soldiers in various attitudes of suffering in the streets and a few doorways, even a stream of red running out the jailhouse door. He wondered what Joe had stolen from Hop Sing, and what sort of retribution their cook would dole out when he discovered the theft.
Hop Sing’s punishments might not hurt like a tanning, but they were far more creative.
“My, aren’t you a morbid little devil?”
“Why do you gotta use them big words?”
Two syllables. “Bloodthirsty?”
Joe grinned widely. Three syllables. Just what was his little brother’s definition of big? “Look at this, Adam.” He pointed to the saloon door. “Open that.”
With trepidation, Adam complied. A small figure lolled out, caught in mid-fall by a piece of twine tied to one arm. Its head detached, bounced a couple of times, and rolled across the dirt ‘road’ to rest gently against the jailhouse steps. Little Joe was cackling too hard to explain, so Mitch did the honors.
“When Miss Jones opens the doors, she’ll … she’ll …”
And the shame of it was, she probably would. Abigail Jones was not known for her fortitude or her common sense. A headless soldier with … was that soy sauce splashed across its uniform and along its neck? … would probably do her in for the day, and destroy whatever points the boys managed to score with their enthusiasm.
She also wasn’t known for her sense of humor.
He had no intention of pointing this out.
So, a Halloween town that was more gruesome than Halloween-ish … but consider the source. Adam eyed the drooping white linen and sprawled soldiers, then shrugged and gave in to his own bit of decorative gusto.
There would be time later to point out the obvious.
“Doesn’t the jail cell need a ghost?”
“He can be looking out the window!”
“That’s where the blood’s coming from, probably.”
A bleeding ghost? Well, that was a new one … but it was their project …
Mitch went scrabbling for a stick, and Little Joe relieved the feed store of its ghostly proprietor. Or was it a customer? Adam wasn’t sure. A few brief moments, a quickly repaired bar on the window, and the boys stood back, admiring their new addition.
“Does Roy know you’ve turned his jail into a house of horror?”
Joe scoffed. “Roy ain’t scared of no ghosts.”
Adam was certain their friend would be thrilled with Little Joe’s estimation of his courage.
“What else you got?”
Adam looked down into a couple of expectant, upturned faces—and threw maturity to the winds. Was it his fault Miss Jones had made the project due so close to Halloween?
“What have you got in the way of birds?”
“Many Indian tribes believe the owl is a symbol of death.”
Both boys scrunched their faces in silent thought, then suddenly Little Joe lit up. “Wait here!” he gasped, and dashed off toward the house.
Oh, this ought to be good.
In the meantime … Adam turned to Mitch. “If you’re going to have a bird, what about a scarecrow?”
It was no perfect thing, as they were working in miniature with scrounged (one syllable—surely even Little Joe couldn’t complain about that) materials, but when the two stood back several minutes later Adam was ridiculously proud of their creation. A handful of straw molded into a roughly human shape and wrapped around in burlap served for the body, pinned together with some of the tacking repair supplies. A small pinecone served as a head, and a flat circle of cut leather pinned on top did for a hat. It was ugly and pathetic, but it made Adam want to laugh like he was Little Joe’s age—and Mitch was giggling outright as he carefully worked a long wood sliver up the back and fixed it into the ground. Little Joe arrived back about that point, breathless and proud.
It was the sparkly dove that went on the Christmas tree every year. Pa would have a fit.
Adam snorted, took it from his little brother, and balanced it atop the emporium. The bird was roughly the same size as the soldiers, and loomed over the city below. Hmm. Despite its festive (two syllables again) air, maybe it did add to the general horror and chaos of the scene …
“I got this, too.” Joe sneaked a cautious look at Adam as he handed over the black bandana. And well he should be cautious—it was Adam’s bandana. For the moment, however, the boy was in the clear. In keeping with the general spirit of the afternoon, the older brother decided he could donate one insignificant piece of clothing to the cause.
“What were you thinking?”
Little Joe straightened, his wide grin returning. “The Grim Reaper. We can prop it up coming out of one of the alleys.”
It was the work of a few minutes to set up Death in the alley across from the jailhouse, tilted forward on his prop as though he was about to glide into the center of town. (“Do you want to put him on one of the horses?” “Yeah!”) That done, the three of them stood back, surveying their handiwork. He had to admit, his embellishments really added something. Adam was absurdly pleased. And even somewhat reluctant now to point out the obvious.
“Boys, it’s great. It’s also big.”
“She said it could be as big as we wanted!”
Adam lifted a slow eyebrow. “How are you going to get it to school?”
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